Former Thai PM Samak Dies at 74

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Then Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej greets supporters in the northeastern province of Udon Thani, Thailand, on Sept. 9, 2008

Less than two years after reaching the zenith of his political career, Samak Sundaravej, a former Thai Prime Minister known for his acid tongue, ultra-right-wing views and weekly gourmet cooking show, died of cancer at a Bangkok hospital on Tuesday morning. He was 74.

The 25th Prime Minister of Thailand, Samak was elected in December 2008 in the first national polls following a military coup that deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Samak freely admitted he had been chosen to lead the victorious People Power Party by Thaksin, who was living in exile but retained enormous popularity with Thailand's poor and rural electorate. Samak, whose base was in Bangkok, appealed to the rural majority by proudly proclaiming he was Thaksin's "proxy."

A former television-quiz-show contestant and law student, Samak entered politics in the 1970s, winning a seat in parliament from Bangkok's military-populated Dusit district. He eventually held several Cabinet posts, including deputy premier. Samak's long-stated ambition was to become Prime Minister, but his time at the top was brief. He was disqualified from holding the premiership by the Constitutional Court after just nine months because he had violated the office's prohibition on holding a second job — his popular television cooking show, which he spiced and flavored with pungent political commentary.

One of the most divisive politicians in Thailand's history, the right-wing Samak was often at the center of controversy. In 1976, he was accused of fomenting an atmosphere that led to a massacre of students at Thammasat University by police and right-wing mobs, and in May 1992 he called democracy demonstrators who helped topple a military dictator "communists" and "rioters." Democracy activists branded him one of the country's political "devils." As Prime Minister he praised the military junta in Burma as "good Buddhists" and called Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi a "tool of the West."

Nonetheless, his no-holds-barred polemics made him popular with Bangkok's poor and lower-middle-class voters, who elected him governor in 2001 with over 1 million votes, the largest number in the city's history. "He's a lower-middle-class hero," says historian Chris Baker, author of Thailand, Economy and Politics. "He appeals to street vendors, small shopkeepers, minor officials and people working in the informal sector. They like him because he sounds off; he speaks his mind. He's a source of entertainment, but he's also a ranter and a thug."

Although Samak had become one of Thaksin's strongest supporters in recent years, they were once bitter rivals as Deputy Prime Ministers in 1996. Both had been tasked with solving Bangkok's intractable traffic problems, but their constant squabbling led constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej to summon them to the palace for a dressing down. Afterwards, the two made an effort at working together, but still failed to solve the capital's traffic jams.